Kindred: Theme Analysis
The Nature of Reality
What shapes a person’s sense of reality more, what they see or what they believe they see? In Kindred, Dana is constantly trying to reconcile what she thinks she knows about slavery, i.e., what she has read in books, learned in school, or seen in the media, with what she experiences in Rufus’s time. These sources of information have shaped her reality, one in which a black woman has rights. Likewise, Rufus’s reality has been shaped by his surroundings: his father, the plantation system, his white upbringing. Dana finds herself in the odd, confusing position of having to live in someone else’s reality (Rufus’s) while trying to maintain her own sense of reality. She almost fails to preserve her own reality as she falls more and more into the sensibilities of a slave. The things around her—what she sees and touches—begin to take over her beliefs. Whips and pallets in the attic, Alice’s broken body, and even the Weylin house, become more real than her possessions in California. Likewise, Kevin, once he returns to their home after five years, finds everyday items like stoves and typewriters to have little meaning anymore. What he has seen during those five years has reshaped his reality.
The Nature of Slavery
In many interviews, Butler stated that her intention in writing Kindred was to make slavery real to readers. Most people, she claimed, have read about the horrors of slavery, but they cannot truly understand how horrible it was because they are removed from it by time. She removes such a boundary for her protagonist, Dana, and through Dana readers experience the physical and mental realities of slavery. Dana learns, first, that the physical reality of slavery—the hard work, the rape, and the brutal whippings and other punishments—are more excruciating than she could have imagined. She learns that fear is the main tool of slave owners, and it is a most effective tool. Dana finds herself losing her desire to fight as she fears the whip more and more. Second, Dana experiences the mental state of slavery. She scoffs at slaves like Sarah, who do not even want to hear that freedom is possible, yet Dana finds herself slowly letting fear turn her into a complacent woman, afraid to fight back. Third, Dana comes to understand the symbiotic nature of the master/slave relationship. The master depends upon the slaves and the slaves depend upon the master; it is a sticky web of interdependence. Dana suspects that beneath his arrogant exterior Rufus could be persuaded to give up slavery, except for the fact that doing so would actually be worse for his slaves, who would be sold to other owners and their families split up. No one understands this interdependent, love-hate relationship better than Dana, for she herself is connected to Rufus in a personal, yet businesslike relationship. She depends upon him for her survival, and he depends upon her for his. Their relationship symbolizes the intricacies of the master-slave relationship.
Many of Butler’s works involve the individual alone, alienated from others by distance, circumstances, or emotional barriers. In Kindred, Dana is alone before she meets Kevin, and after they both time-travel to antebellum Maryland, she is even more alone. She finds herself separated from Kevin by ideology when he does not see slavery as seriously as she does. She is separated from him when circumstances dictate that he is treated as a guest in the Weylin household, while she is assumed to be his slave and mistress. When they are reunited after Kevin has been gone five years, they are further alienated by the brutality each has endured during that time. It is Dana’s understanding of loneliness that allows her to understand Rufus, who is lonely and angry as a child and who grows to be man whose loneliness drives him to rape and violence. She understands his intense need to control her because he needs her companionship, but she also sees that he seeks to drain her. Dana must put aside her empathy for Rufus in order to survive when he threatens to rape and possess her, just like he did Alice.